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Renewing the Hamburg-Frontier rivalry

Rich Gray (left), Frontier athletics director, and Greg Witman, Hamburg athletics director, hold the Challenge Trophy which after a 26-year hiatus is back to elevate the rivals’ competition. (Photo by Michael J. Petro)

Schools hope finding trophy rekindles Hamburg-Frontier rivalry

When Frontier and Hamburg high school’s athletics teams meet on the playing field or surface, it would be hard to argue that the players aren’t a little more impassioned and focused, the crowds aren’t a little bigger and louder and that the tension in the competition isn’t somewhat elevated.

However, an argument also can be made that there’s been something missing from the rivalry that dates back to at least 1955 when the two teams first met on the football field. The competition between Hamburg schools hasn’t been the same, some might say, in two to three decades.

Ask coaches from either school who is their biggest rival, and a number of times the answer won’t be the natural cross-town rival schools. Instead, many times they’ll pick another neighboring school that’s closer in student numbers or plays in the same division.

Rich Gray noticed that as he coached Frontier’s varsity football team, so when the Albany-area native became athletics director at the school three years ago, he hoped to reverse that trend. He and new Hamburg athletics director Greg Witman met last year to discuss an issue also near and dear to the heart of the former Bulldog.

The two ADs looked for a way to ignite the passion and excitement that they heard the rivalry once elicited. They may have found that in the basement of Hamburg High School.

While searching for old trophies and other nostalgic athletic memorabilia to help with the next Hamburg Hall of Fame inductions, Witman and a retired Hamburg teacher stumbled upon an old beat up, blackened trophy.

Witman had remembered Gray speaking of a Challenge Trophy that the Frontier AD heard used to incite the spirit of competition by going to the school that earned the most points totaled over all three sports seasons at the end of a school year.

Gray had searched throughout Frontier High School’s athletic office and also downstairs in the school’s basement but could not find this trophy. It seemed that Witman innocently came across the trophy, but it was not in the best of condition.

The trophy needed to be refurbished and was taken to a few different places before it was discovered to be silver. It simply needed a good polishing and wipe down.

“Now, it’s like the Stanley Cup,” said Gray having a little fun with the new find. ‘You need to wear white gloves so that you don’t leave finger prints. Now that it’s been wiped down, it just looks fantastic.”

The two not only found a precious heirloom for the schools; they discovered an incentive to light a fire in the Hamburg and Frontier rivalry. The trophy will be back up for grabs for the first time in 26 years.

“We thought the rivalry could be better,” said Witman, who would know, having been around some of Western New York’s most storied rivalries.

He was a coach at Depew, whose football rivalry with Lancaster, dating back to 1919, was once ranked in the Top 15 in the nation by USA Today, and later served as the athletics director at North Tonawanda, whose rivalry with Tonawanda is the oldest in Western New York, the two playing football against one another since 1896.

“We thought, ‘How do we get Hamburg-Frontier to that type of level?’” Witman said. “So, we’re trying this.”
The top of the trophy comes off revealing parchment paper (middle) inside detailing the trophies background and past winners, while the bottom of the trophy is engraved in German.

The top of the trophy comes off revealing parchment paper (middle) inside detailing the trophies background and past winners, while the bottom of the trophy is engraved in German.

The top of the trophy comes off revealing parchment paper (middle) inside detailing the trophies background and past winners, while the bottom of the trophy is engraved in German.

Trophy reveals history

Inside the trophy, the two ADs said there was a scroll on parchment paper explaining in German from where it originated and the intent of the competition between schools. It also listed the trophies winners dating back to 1957 through 1971.

The trophy was a gift to the schools from Hamburg’s sister city in Germany, presented by its mayor in 1957, according to Gray. After some research, Witman explained what the designs were on each side of the trophy. One side features the code of arms of the City of Hamburg, Germany and the other, a Statue of Victoria overlooking a famous port in the city.

The trophy was won by the school that compiled the most points in competition against each other. Three points were awarded to varsity wins, two to JV and one to freshman. The losing school’s athletics director would present it to the winning school at its end-of-the-year banquet – just a little extra motivation to push the rivals.

It was awarded through the 1985-86 school year but afterward, both schools agreed to end the tradition when Frontier’s school numbers jumped significantly higher than Hamburg and the two were no longer playing in the same division.

Jim Baker, a Frontier graduate, who coached at his alma mater during the era of the Challenge Trophy, encouraged athletics directors at both schools for years to rekindle the tradition and find the trophy.

The Town of Hamburg historian even wrote an “Out of the Past” feature on it in The Sun. His requests didn’t get anywhere until Gray mentioned to Witman to be on the lookout for the trophy in hopes that finding it could help reinvigorate the rivalry.

Baker remembers a very healthy but still friendly rivalry between the two schools when the trophy was on the line. Games between the teams always seemed to have a little extra meaning and there were some fun and memorable pranks that the two played on one another behind the scenes.

“It was a good healthy competition for both schools. It was too bad it went away,” Baker said. “There’s no question that back then was the hay day of the rivalry. It hasn’t been the same since. I hope this helps.”

Witman assumes Hamburg was the last winner of the trophy, simply because of where he found it. Baker said there was never an announcement that it would no longer be given to the winning school; it simply ceased to happen and was essentially forgotten about.

It faded away so quietly that Witman, who would begin high school at Hamburg just two years later and play sports during his four years before graduating in 1991, never even heard of its existence until last year. After initially talking with Gray, Witman spoke about it with former Hamburg AD’s Chuck Amo and Bill Brand, both of whom confirmed its existence.

“It was a completely dead tradition,” Witman noted.

Modern version of rivalry

Frontier remains a bigger school playing most sports in a division higher than Hamburg. However, the Bulldogs have as comprehensive and extensive of sports offerings as the Falcons, while both schools have enjoyed a variety of program successes.

Hamburg comes off a spring in which its varsity teams won three Section VI titles, including a fifth championship in the past six seasons for its Western New York renowned boys lacrosse program. A number of Frontier teams also have made a name for themselves, including the volleyball programs that won both the boys and girls sectional titles in 2010.

The playing field is as even as ever, despite the difference in student numbers, but the rivalry needed a little something to kick it back into high gear. Both ADs believe this could be it.

“We like the rivalry now and it’s been pretty friendly but it wasn’t as big,” Gray said. “It’s like playing your next door neighbor at basketball in your driveway. We wanted to add a little more intensity to it.”

So, for the first time since 1986, the schools will bring back the tradition of playing for the trophy, but with a slight change to the scoring system. Two points will be awarded to the winner of each varsity game and a point will go to a varsity team that earns Scholar-Athlete status, to add an academic element to the competition.

The two schools will make a concerted effort to play each other in each sport for which it is determined that points will be awarded. While it may not work in a sport like cross country and the schools do offer sports that the other doesn’t – such as field hockey at Hamburg and girls ice hockey at Frontier, points will be counted for all sports deemed applicable.

For example, in the fall, the football and soccer teams will plan the out-of-league games and then the same will be done for team sports in the winter and spring. The schools’ volleyball teams are division mates in ECIC I and automatically scheduled to play twice. Gray said Frontier’s golf team is already excited that it earned the first two points in the competition with a win over Hamburg last week.

“We’re all really excited,” Gray said. “We’ll do this for as many sports as possible, and pass this thing back-and-forth each year again.”

“And then the other AD will have to present it himself at the other school and get booed,” added the former college football player, laughing for perhaps the first time about being jeered in the heat of competition.

If it means rekindling something special between the two schools, he’ll make that sacrifice.


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